Beyond the NHL

Not everyone who impressed came with a big reputation

26.02.2014
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With half of the players in the Olympic men’s ice hockey tournament coming from European leagues, Sochi 2014 offered a chance for these players to prove their value against the best NHL players. Pictured: Slovenia’s Ziga Jeglic and Team USA’s Ryan Kesler. Photo: Jeff Vinnick / HHOF-IIHF Images

Before the Games, the talk is all about the big stars; after, some new names burn brightly.

One of the joys of the Olympics is seeing unheralded talents blossom and mature on the biggest stage of all. It's not necessarily about winning medals or topping the scoring charts. It's not even about earning a place on the tournament all-star team. But it is about producing performances which exceeded pre-Games expectations and either kick-starting a career at a higher level or sending a sharp reminder that there may still be a role at NHL level after an earlier failure.

Two of the brightest talents to emerge came from outsiders: while Slovenia and Latvia never looked likely to trouble the medallists, both nations out-performed expectations to reach the quarter-finals, and that highlighted some individual talents along the way.

For the Latvians, goalie Kristers Gudlevskis started the tournament facing a battle to dislodge Edgars Masalskis from behind the Latvian piping. He ended it as the scourge of Canada, pulling off an incredible 55 saves against the eventual gold medallists in a quarter-final clash which saw one of the team's biggest outsiders get within 10 minutes of taking the mighty Canadians to overtime.

Followers of the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championships might have been less surprised by this: Gudlevskis impressed in the 2013 tournament. And his performances in Sochi have not gone unnoticed, with that Canada game sparking a flurry of Twitter talk about him stepping up from AHL hockey with Syracuse Crunch to join the NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning.

Gudlevskis will be heading to Florida on his return from Russia, but the organisation's goalkeeping coaches currently regard him as insurance in the event that backup goalie Anders Lindback can't suit up on Thursday when the NHL campaign resumes. But even if the 20-year-old Latvian prospect still has more work to do, his showing in Sochi has made him one of the hottest properties in the game.

Slovenia arrived as the team who everyone expected to be happy just to take part, and with no serious expectation of winning a game. But by the second intermission of its opening game, with Russia sweating on a slender 3-2 lead, forward Ziga Jeglic had already pushed himself into rarified company, jostling for headline space with the likes of Ovechkin and Malkin.

Previously Jeglic's best moments had come in World Championship action with Slovenia, where his potent partnership with line-mates Robert Sabolic and Rok Ticar have seen the tiny former Yugoslav Republic reach the top flight on several occasions.

His club hockey comes in Germany's DEL with ERC Ingolstadt but he's not averse to trying out at a higher level and there are rumours that he may join international team-mate Jan Mursak in the KHL. "Maybe I'll get a chance to come back here and play in the KHL," he told journalists after picking up an assist in the group stage win over Slovakia. "I'd be really proud to play here, but I still have a long way to go."

Two other prominent non-NHL names helped push Finland to a bronze medal. The Nordic nation was the only one of the semi-finalists to include a large quota of European-based players - indeed in its last-eight match-up against Russia it had more skaters from the KHL than its opponent.

Two of them, Sami Lepisto and Petri Kontiola, have experience of the NHL but this tournament provided a jolt to those who dismissed their talents across the ocean.

Defenceman Lepisto has the greatest NHL experience - but the large number of clubs he has represented suggests a man who has yet to find his home. This season he's been a big part of Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg's improvement in the KHL, helping to steer the perennial struggler towards a play-off spot.

Then came a bronze-medal display in the Olympics, picking up two points and an impressive +5 rating as part of Finland's miserly rear guard. At the age of 30, and with frustrating stints in Washington, Phoenix, Columbus and Chicago on his resume, it may be too late to launch a successful conquest of North America. However it's easy to imagine him attracting the interest of some of the KHL's big hitters in the summer.

Kontiola, meanwhile, a year younger, is in a fourth season of solid KHL scoring. His club exploits reached their peak last season when he added experience to a youthful Traktor Chelyabinsk roster as it won through to the Gagarin Cup final before losing in six games to Dynamo Moscow.

Playing in Russia seems to suit him: at international level he helped Finland to silver in the 2007 Worlds before taking bronze here with 1+4=5 points and a +5 rating. He's also found the net regularly in stints with Metallurg Magnitogorsk and Traktor, and at the age of 29 is approaching the peak of his powers.

ANDY POTTS


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